Rare texts and images from early modern France

Rubens and the King of France

This summer, the Prado Museum in Madrid hosted the exhibition Tesoros de la Hispanic Society of America: Visiones del mundo hispánico. Among the 200 objects on loan from New York was a letter from Peter Paul Rubens to Pierre Dupuy, a central figure of intellectual life in Paris during the first half of the seventeenth century. It is one fragment of an extensive ensemble which counts among the most engrossing correspondences of early modern Europe. From 1626 to 1629, the Flemish artist and the French scholar communicated in Italian on an almost weekly basis, producing a rich epistolary corpus replete with personal, cultural, and political news. Dupuy diligently preserved his friend’s letters, which later (in 1754) entered the Bibliothèque du Roi as volume 714 of the massive fonds Dupuy.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, when the market for autographs developed and rapidly expanded, the Rubens volume became a prime target for thieves, the most infamous of whom was the Italian count and mathematician Guglielmo Libri. By 1838, at least 26 of Rubens’s letters to Dupuy had been removed from the bound collection; 18 more disappeared during the following decade, before the librarians noticed and stopped the bleeding.1 Many of the purloined manuscripts soon resurfaced in autograph sales in Paris and London, while others were traded privately. A Rubens letter – which is usually dated and signed and beautifully written – became a must-have for the serious collector and fetched ever-rising prices at auction. The Bibliothèque nationale managed to retrieve a few letters, but most of them have been widely and irrevocably dispersed. Today, only 33 letters remain in volume 714, barely a third of its original contents. On the other hand, some 30 letters from Rubens to Dupuy can now be found in libraries and museums in 8 countries; another 15 or 20 probably still exist in private collections.

Charles Ruelens and Max Rooses, the editors of the monumental Codex Diplomaticus Rubenianus (1887-1909), tracked the history of each letter and located a good number of the scattered originals. For her English translation of The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, Ruth Saunders Magurn updated and augmented their list and published 10 letters for the very first time, including 6 addressed to Dupuy. Since then, a few more of the “lost” manuscripts have been identified in previously overlooked locations such as Forlì, Italy, and St. Louis, Missouri.2

Reassembling the pieces of the Rubens-Dupuy correspondence is surely a never-ending puzzle as more letters continue to come to light, including some whose contents had remained completely unknown. One such unpublished missive is preserved in the autograph collection that Charles Roberts donated to his alma mater Haverford College in 1902. The letter is dated Antwerp, March 11, 1627, and bears a seal and a superscription to “Monsieur du Puy, chez Monsieur le conseiller du Thou, a Paris.”

Charles Roberts Autograph Collection, Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania

The existence of the manuscript was signaled in the Codex Diplomaticus on the basis of an 1875 Sotheby catalogue advertising the sale of the collection of Dr. O’Callaghan, where it was presented as a “splendid specimen of his rare autograph […] very characteristic, referring both to political matters and painting.” In fact, painting is not discussed in this letter, which is dominated (like most of the correspondence) by public affairs. Several of its topics continue those of the preceding letter, dated March 4. The King of Spain’s announcement that he won’t pay back the debts incurred with Genoese bankers causes anxiety in Antwerp and could lead to a global credit crisis (“perche il traffico e concatenato insieme“). The Hollanders seem to be preparing for some military undertaking. Rubens has finally sent off a rare book to Dupuy and apologizes for the high cost of shipping. He did not include prints of the Rhine-Maas Canal because they are worthless and he should soon receive a more accurate depiction.

Perhaps the most interesting and revealing parts of the letter, however, concern two unruly clerics imprisoned in the Spanish Netherlands. The first is “il Padre Barnesio,” i.e. John Barnes, a Benedictine monk from England and author of an anti-Jesuit Dissertatio contra Æquivocationes. In December 1626, Barnes was arrested in Paris and brought to the prison of Vilvorde near Brussels.

Charles Roberts Autograph Collection, Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania

Rubens informs Dupuy that the duke of Buckingham (favorite of Charles I) asked him to intercede on Barnes’s behalf; while he was unable to obtain the monk’s liberation from the Infanta Isabella (governor of the Spanish Netherlands), his efforts at least led to better treatment for the prisoner. Archival documents in Paris show that the French were aware of the painter-diplomat’s contacts with Buckingham and worried about his role in this affair.3 Somewhat mysteriously, Rubens hints at the true reasons behind Barnes’s arrest:

this business matters more to your King of France than to anyone else who personally gave the order for this imprisonment. I think I’m well informed and could tell you many things face to face that I don’t dare to put in a letter.

Rubens then moves on to another, less sensitive topic — but before sending off the letter, he returns to Barnes and adds this note in the margin:

all his gravest Guilt consists in some heretical opinions in favor of the King of England against the Priests who are to attend to that Queen [sc. Henrietta Maria of France, wife of Charles I], and in this way he stirred up the differences between the two Crowns of France and England.

This contradicts the official version, published in the Mercure françois and repeated in modern accounts, according to which Barnes was arrested at the request of his own congregation. The explanation given by Rubens, pointing to reasons of State rather than intra-Benedictine quarrels, sounds eminently plausible and is consistent with the little that is known about the monk’s role at the court of Charles I.4

At the end of the letter, between the salutation and his signature, Rubens inserts another piece of political news:

Charles Roberts Autograph Collection, Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania

A French recollect Father named Father friar Giorgio le Bailli was arrested in Brussels at the behest of the King of France and brought to the same prison where Father Barnes is staying. This recollect Father is a good Preacher and his sermons were attended by almost our entire Court. He is said to have knowledge of the plot of the Duke of Vendôme [half-brother of Louis XIII].

This postscript seems to refer to Georges Le Baillif, who has a small place in the history of New France: in 1620, he sailed as a missionary to Québec in the company of Champlain; the following year, he was chosen by the colony to present a list of grievances to Louis XIII, who apparently knew and respected him. But Le Baillif may have also authored a violent pamphlet, even forged some letters; in any case, he did not return to Québec. According to his biographers, nothing at all is known about the Recollect’s life after 1625.5 Did it end in the dungeons of Vilvorde?

In 1634, in a letter to another of his French scholar-friends, Rubens looked back upon his diplomatic missions:

I carried out negotiations of the gravest importance, to the complete satisfaction of those who sent me and also of the other parties. And in order that you may know all, they then entrusted to me, and to me alone, all the secret affairs of France regarding the flight of the Queen Mother and the Duke of Orléans from the kingdom of France, as well as the permission granted them to seek asylum with us. Thus I could provide an historian with much material, and the pure truth of the case, very different from that which is generally believed.6

Whether it provides the “pure truth” or not, the newly rediscovered letter at Haverford College certainly adds some intriguing material about the secret affairs of France in the age of Louis XIII and Richelieu.

Volker Schröder
October 1, 2017

Robert Nanteuil, Portrait of Pierre Dupuy (1651), Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton University Library


1. Ludovic Lalanne and Henri Bordier, Dictionnaire des pièces autographes volées aux bibliothèques publiques de la France, Paris: Panckoucke, 1851, p. 240-244.
2. See Paul Oskar Kristeller, Iter Italicum, London: Warburg Institute, 1963-1996; Julius S. Held, “A Rubens Letter,” Burlington Magazine, vol. 122, no. 932 (Nov. 1980), p. 768; Rubens, Lettere italiane, ed. Irene Cotta, Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1987.
3. Alexis Merle du Bourg, Peter Paul Rubens et la France, 1600-1640, Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2004, p. 77-78.
4. See Dom Yves Chaussy, Les Bénédictins anglais réfugiés en France au XVIIe siècle (1611-1669), Paris: Lethielleux, 1967, and Stuart Dynastic Policy and Religious Politics 1621-1625, ed. Michael C. Questier, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
5. René Bacon, “Père Georges Le Baillif,” in Dictionnaire biographique des récollets-missionnaires en Nouvelle-France, ed. Odoric Jouve, Montréal: Bellarmin, 1996, p. 548-552. – The postscript by Rubens elucidates the identity of the “père George, Recolet” mentioned in a letter that Pierre Dupuy’s brother Jacques addressed to Peiresc on March 8, 1627 (Lettres de Peiresc aux frères Dupuy, ed. Philippe Tamizey de Larroque, vol. 1, Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1888, p. 825-826). Jacques Dupuy adds that it is believed that the Recollect will be extradited to France in exchange for the king having allowed the arrest and transfer of Barnes. But if we accept Rubens’s explanation, both arrests were actually made at the behest and in the interest of Louis XIII (i.e. Richelieu). For Jacques Dupuy’s account of Barnes’s arrest, see his Dec 7, 1626 letter to Peiresc (ibid., p. 773-774).
6. Letter to Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, December 18, 1634, in The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, trans. and ed. Ruth Saunders Magurn, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971, p. 392.

Thanks to Alessandro Giammei for helping with the translation. Further corrections and clarifications are welcome.

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This entry was posted on October 1, 2017 in Autographs, Manuscripts and tagged , , , .